Before Tel Aviv was a bustling metropolis, before the coastline was filled with buildings and homes and vineyards, the area was a sandy stretch of land with just a few scraggly acacia trees reaching toward the sky. Acacia trees are usually found in Africa, but there are four types in Israel, and the winter thorn species, also called the apple ring tree (Acacia albida) is the only acacia species in the coastal region.
Today Tel Aviv is filled with many trees: majestic eucalyptus and leafy ficus — a white city with a plethora of green. But this green was brought in the past 150 years by sweat or by ship from exotic locations around the country and around the world. The eucalpytus are from Australia; the citrus trees are from China or Japan. Merely a few acacia trees are left in the city, the only remnant of Tel Aviv’s natural landscape.
A lone acacia tree stands in the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood. The perfectly pruned orange trees that dot the center of the plaza tell one story about Tel Aviv, an old neighborhood that was renovated and refurbished and turned into a landscaped cultural landmark. This lone acacia tells a different story of the city, a city whose pioneers struggled to build the first Hebrew city, and cursed the acacia thorns which tore their tents and clothes, until they ripped up most of the stubborn roots of the tree and built their city on the sand.
Jews around the world celebrate Tu Bishvat, the holiday of the trees, on January 24 this year. To celebrate Tu Bishvat, tree historian Yaacov Shkolnik, who works with the Jewish National Fund – Keren Keyemeth LeYisrael, highlights four surprising trees in Tel Aviv that tell the story of the foundation of the first Hebrew city.
New Year for Trees
Tu Bishvat is one of four new years in the Jewish calendar, when the trees first begin to bloom. It is also the “tax day” for the trees, the cutoff point to determine how much tithes should be paid for each year’s harvest. To mark the occasion, kabbalists outside of Israel liked to eat fruits from the Holy Land. Because this was in the time before refrigeration and supply-chain logistics, they ate dried fruit from Israel, which is where the tradition of eating dried fruit on Tu Bishvat began.
Although in Israel people generally celebratre Tu Bishvat by planting trees, it is not the best time to plant trees, said Shkolnik. The best time to plant trees is in the springtime, when the tender saplings are not at risk from the winter storms that still roll across the country, he said. Still, the tree enthusiast loves seeing the country get worked up about trees every year at this time.
“Nothing connects a person more to their land than planting trees,” he said. “It’s a type of renewal.”
Here are a list of Shkolnik’s most interesting historical trees in the Tel Aviv region:
1. Apple ring acacia tree in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv
The acacia tree of Neve Tzedek is in the southern part of the Suzanne Dellal plaza, growing next to a private home.
These acacia trees generally grow in thickets, and their roots are incredibly stubborn. It probably took a lot of hours of sweat and tears to clear the other acacia trees from this area when the first inhabitants of Tel Aviv built a girls’ and boys’ school in this area in 1908, noted Shkolnik.
Because the roots are so stubborn, trying to sprout new trees between the cracks in the paved plaza, the residents have to wage a constant battle to keep it contained.
Often when Shkolnik visits the tree, he can see little shoots peeking out between cracks.
2. Sycamore, behind 8 Oliphant Street, Tel Aviv
Sycamores also dotted the coastal plane of Israel as far back as the biblical times, and even the prophet Amos mentions them. But it’s unclear if the sycamores, which trace their roots to east Africa, occurred naturally in this area or were planted by merchants or travelers in the ancient times.
The question is vexing architects and residents of Oliphant Street, where a giant sycamore with a trunk of more than two meters in diameter (6.5 feet) is threatening plans to refurbish a building according to the TAMA 38 Earthquake Retrofitting standards. Whatever gets built will need to take the tree’s impressive branches into consideration.
“It’s a tree in the headlines,” said Shkolnik. It also represents the tension between natural resources and expanding urbanism.
Ancient Egyptians worshiped sycamore trees and made mummy coffins out of the species. Most sycamores in the area were not preserved, though King George Street has a number of large sycamores.
3. Bengali ficus tree, Mikve Yisrael, Holon
The Bengali ficus tree in Holon’s Mikve Yisrael is a famous tree, both for its impressive stature as well as its spot in history.
The ficus was brought to Israel and planted in 1888 outside of the synagogue at the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School. Karl Netter of the French Jewish organization Alliance Israélite Universelle founded the school in 1870. At the time, there were just 13,000 Jews in Israel, living in cramped quarters in cities like Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Tzfat. The agricultural school was one of the first attempts to bring urban Jews to start working the land.
In 1898, Theodor Herzl strode past this Bengali ficus, down a promenade with palm trees on either side, to meet German Emperor Wilhelm II. This meeting was Herzl’s reason for coming to Israel; he had hoped to plead the case for a Jewish state with the kaiser. The tree, which now is the size of a small building, was just 10 years old at the time.
The tropical tree has “air roots,” which mean in humid condition roots sprout from the branches and reach towards the ground, removing moisture from the air. When the roots reach the ground, they grow like a new trunk, adding additional support so the tree can continue to grow.
Grafts taken from this ficus have sprouted new trees elsewhere in Israel — in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, Givat Brenner, and Rehovot.
“It’s a very violent tree,” said Shkolnik. “In this tree, I can feel the strength of nature, the fight to survive, the competition for light, water, and nutrients.”
“It’s also a very unusual tree in Israel, but has a connection to Zionism,” Shkolnik added. “It’s almost like [Israeli] Zionism began here.”
4. Lemon-scented eucalyptus (gum tree), 8 Shapira St, Petah Tikva
One of Shkolnik’s favorite trees in all of Israel is near his home in Petah Tikva. “It’s surprising, because it’s on the most banal street ever,” he said.
This towering eucalyptus, with a unique smooth trunk, is located on a quiet residential street, flanked by nondescript apartments. There are more than 600 species of eucalyptus, but the lemon-scented variety stands apart due to its exquisite smell. When crushed, the leaves smell like lemons, obviously, but also like a freshly-washed floor, clean and sparkling.
The tree is a native of Queensland, Australia, and was planted on the street in 1883 by some of the first residents of Petah Tikva. Originally there were two lemon-scented eucalyptus trees on the street, but one died during a locust plague in 1915.
“You don’t expect to see a tree like this in Petah Tikva,” said Shkolnik. “People walk by it and don’t even notice it.”
What makes a tree important?
The average person walks by hundreds of trees every day and barely notices them. “From an ecological perspective, we owe a lot to trees,” said Shkolnik, who was previously a guide for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the editor of Eretz VeTeva Magazine. “They purify the air, they produce oxygen. Trees are the biological being that lives for the longest period of time. The oldest trees in the world are in the White Mountains in California; there are trees there that are 4,000 years old.”
Shkolnik wrote a book, “101 Special and Amazing Trees in Israel,” a collection of a decade of tree mapping undertaken with Sohil Zidan, KKL-JNF’s olive and fruit grove expert, and Dr. Yoram Goldring, the organization’s chief ecologist, as well as JNF-KKL and local municipalities. (See photos of all 101 trees at photographer Hanan Isachar’s website).
According to Israeli law, any tree that has a diameter of more than 20 centimeters (just under eight inches) is a protected tree. This means that if anyone wants permission to build or do landscaping, they must get approval from their local forestry division. Many local municipalities undertook tree-mapping expeditions to identify the trees in their region that deserve to be protected. Shkolnik and his team combed through these maps and peppered residents with questions to identify the most special and amazing trees in the country.
“What makes an important tree?” asked Shkolnik. “If it’s especially old, especially big, or amazing in another way, like a special cultural significance.”
He hopes that as Israelis celebrate Tu Bishvat and plants new trees, they will also take a moment to appreciate the trees already in their lives. “A tree connects you to the place where you are,” said Shkolnik. “Ancient trees are important to our heritage because they tell us about our culture.”